Titans of Training: Pull Ups vs Lat Pull downs
For this article in the titans of training series, we’re going to look at the gigantic big back builders that are; the lat pulldown and the pull up. They are likely the two most common and famous exercises for anyone interested in their fitness, or that has ever stepped foot in a gym, so they must be doing something right, but which is superior?
We'll start with the pull-up. From a generalised point of view, we're talking about a standard, wide grip pull up on a bar with no assistance or added weight, so it’s just you and the bar.
One of the most significant arguments in favour of the pull up is that it is an incredibly effective compound exercise. It puts your upper body strength to the test and is a real feat of strength in general. No muscle can be undertrained for you to be able to pull it off properly and with good form, and even more so for you to be able to do a full complete set!
It means that you have to use more than just you back as well. You need to really utilise your lats more than anything else of course, but your biceps, traps, pecs, delts, you name it, they’re all involved and working together to lift you above that bar and safely back down again.
Another key advantage that the pull-up has over the lat pulldown is that the movement is far more natural than the use of the weight that the pulldown offers. The training and strength that it offers is much more practical too, with real situational uses and transferable strength across your entire body rather than just your lats. This does mean though that you can’t start light or increase the weight, you just get rep changes.
The pull-down is not one to be forgotten so easily though, as it clearly still has its advantages for it to still be so popular among gym goers everywhere
The first point to look at would be the isolation aspects that come with it. The machinery and mechanics that are involved with the pulldown mean that it is easily possible for you to switch up your exercises so that you are hitting different areas of your lats for different results. The easiest way to do this is to switch up your grip as well as the equipment you’re using such as a V bar in comparison to a standard wide bar.
The ability to do this also means that you can change things up and really put the focus solely on your back rather than anywhere else like the pull up does, so that if your back is an area of weakness for you, you may find this is the best way for you to progress efficiently.
Because you aren't using balance and stability muscles in your workout too, the exercise is far more controllable so that you can tailor it to your needs and take from it whatever you need. You can do varied sets like drop sets or supersets in order to change things up from time to time, or even just perform the exercise slower so that you can concentrate in the contraction you’re seeing in your back and make sure that your form is absolutely perfect.
Finally, this exercise is a lot safer than the pull-up. It's easy to get a pull-up wrong or even to damage muscles or fall from failure with a pullup, so the lat pulldown means that you are safe and less likely to have a bad technique. Even if you do, it is very easy to correct on a machine.
Both of the exercises are great for your back, and particularly your lats, that goes without saying. Overall though, the pull up is a better exercise in terms of muscle activation, real strength building, and a better range of motion and muscles used. It uses most of your upper body to give you a great all-round exercise, whilst still having variable factors to enable you to train however you need to.
The pulldown is still a great exercise with a lot of variation too, but it isn't on the same level. The pulldown is still worth doing, especially to build up to a pull-up, or to really overload your back afterwards too, but it just isn't on the same level as the pull-up.
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